Geek gossip: The web is a hotbed of rumours – and not just about celebrities

From Steve Jobs’ health to the fate of MySpace, the technology business is the source of endless gossip. Tim Walker reports
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The Independent Tech

There's no better tool for spreading rumours than Twitter, and no rumours spread faster on Twitter than rumours about Twitter. Which is why, on the morning of 5 May this year, 22,000 people clicked through to a single story on the technology blog Valleywag, to read that their favourite microblogging site was on the verge of being sold to Apple for up to $700m.

It wasn't true, but that didn't stop Valleywag's rival blogs recycling the day's hottest gossip. One of them, TechCrunch, admitted that it couldn't corroborate the story, but posted it anyway, because everybody else had. A month later, on 7 June, The New York Times raked over the rumour's ashes and appeared to accuse TechCrunch of favouring half-baked gossip over facts.

This went down badly with TechCrunch's editor Michael Arrington, who posted a lengthy rebuttal claiming that the Times had twisted his words – and that he had made clear the unreliability of the Twitter/Apple story in his original report. TechCrunch is the most influential of the blogs that expose an industry just as gossip-crazed as Hollywood. Most of what it reports turns out to be true, even if many of its stories begin based on hearsay. "The tech world has always been beset by rumour," says British technology commentator Bill Thompson, "but now people outside it can listen in on our conversations."

Arrington, a 39-year-old former lawyer and web entrepreneur from California, founded TechCrunch in 2005 to cover new consumer internet start-ups. Today the site has five million monthly visitors, and is second only to The Huffington Post in Technorati's Top 100 blogs on the web, based on the number of times other sites link to its posts. In his latest attack on the Times (not the first time he has exchanged virtual blows with the paper; he is disdainful of traditional technology journalism), Arrington pointed to a number of monumental scoops he has secured ahead of the mainstream media, including Google's purchase of YouTube; Yahoo's attempts to buy Facebook for $1bn; and the launch of the second version of Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle 2., an aggregator of technology news, maintains a leaderboard of its 100 most linked sources. TechCrunch sits at number one, with more links than its nearest two competitors (CNET and, inevitably, The New York Times) combined; it is, says Thompson, a "600-pound gorilla", able to make or break start-ups with a single post. Arrington, Thompson continues, is like technology's Perez Hilton: "He enjoys scandal and being part of the conversation himself, as much as he enjoys the success and the kudos of so frequently getting it right." Among the other blogs in every tech fan's bookmarks are Mashable (social networks); AppleInsider (Apple Inc news); Venturebeat (venture capital-funded start-ups); and GigaOM (Web 2.0 topics). Valleywag, the first site to break the "news" of the nonexistent Apple/Twitter deal, is the tech arm of the Gawker blog empire run from New York by online mogul Nick Denton. Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch Europe, calls Valleywag "Silicon Valley's very own Heat magazine."

The most popular of all Denton's titles is Gizmodo, Gawker Media's gadget blog. Last December, on the say-so of just one anonymous source, Gizmodo reported that Apple CEO Steve Jobs would not be attending the annual MacWorld Expo due to ill health. Luckily for Brian Lam, the blog's editor, this turned out to be at least half right; Jobs was indeed absent from MacWorld. As far back as October, however, another blog, Silicon Alley Insider, had given credence to false claims that Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Apple and its CEO – soon to return from his enforced sabbatical following a liver transplant – are magnets for gossip, perhaps because they so jealously guard their secrecy. Five years ago Apple took several bloggers to court for violating trade-secret laws, but lost the action and had to pay $700,000 in legal fees. Now the company is said to spread misinformation online to throw bloggers off the scent of new products.In 2007 Engadget, Gizmodo's biggest rival, reported that the release of the first iPhone had been delayed, briefly causing Apple stock to drop by $4bn – until the story was proven false and Engadget forced to publish an embarrassing retraction. Then there's the never-ending buzz about an Apple netbook, which shows no sign of materialising.

"Often a good rumour is interesting enough to print," says Thompson. "That's why newspapers have diary columns – so that they can print unsubstantiated rumour and innuendo with a knowing wink and hope to get away with it."

The music streaming site Last.FM found itself at the sharp end of such a rumour in February, when TechCrunch alleged that the site had passed the private data of its users to the Record Industry Association of America, to allow the Association to search for users who were downloading music illegally. Many concerned users deleted their Last.FM accounts as a result of the post. Despite the site's heated denials (Richard Jones, one of Last.FM's founders, wrote a post of his own entitled "TechCrunch are full of shit"), TechCrunch persisted with its story. Three months later, Arrington posted another piece claiming that it was, in fact, Last.FM's parent company CBS that had leaked the users' data. The story was again denied, but Last.FM's reputation has suffered nonetheless.

TechCrunch itself is no stranger to controversy. Arrington's former life as a web entrepreneur means he has investments in some of the companies his blog reports on; he insists, however, that these conflicts of interest are disclosed whenever his own start-ups are mentioned on TechCrunch. The American journalist and new media expert Jeff Jarvis describes (in his blog, naturally) the scuffle between TechCrunch and The New York Times as symptomatic of what he calls "product v process journalism." "Newspaper people," he writes, "see their articles as finished products of their work. Bloggers see their posts as part of the process of learning."

"Product" journalism, such as that practised by the Times and other traditional news outlets, requires fully sourced and corroborated stories. It assumes that there can be a definitive version of those stories; and, since newspapers are only printed once, it's the definitive version that has to run. "Process" journalism – as practised by bloggers – exposes the workings of a scoop. TechCrunch, for instance, publishes the beginnings of a story that may only be a rumour. The responses to that rumour, often from reliable sources, generate updates to the story, which is polished with the help of readers to get closer to the whole truth. "This is journalism as beta," Jarvis goes on. "every time Google releases a beta, it is saying that the product is incomplete and imperfect. It's a call to collaborate."

In May, for the first time, MySpace recorded fewer monthly users than its rival, Facebook. Last week, the formerly dominant social networking site announced that 30 per cent of its US staff would soon be laid off. "I then wrote a story about MySpace Europe falling apart internally," explains Mike Butcher, previously a print journalist and editor of New Media Age magazine. "Lo and behold, it was validated by the readers' comments. Some of them said the situation was even worse than I'd reported, so that fed back into the story. If commenters leave an email address, then I can start up a conversation with them and they become sources. We beat the mainstream media a lot because of the way we operate. There's no deadline online. The deadline is always now. But later, as more information becomes available, we can update and improve a story." (Yesterday MySpace confirmed that it was laying off two thirds of its global workforce).

These days TechCrunch boasts not only a European title, but a Japanese one, too, as well as separate blogs covering mobile computing, gadgets and more. Arrington has even developed a prototype for a piece of TechCrunch hardware, a touchscreen internet browser called the Crunchpad. Now, what will Engadget have to say about that?